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[Tribeca ’13] Danny Mulheron serves up cannibal comedy, “FRESH MEAT”

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Danny Mulheron, director of horror comedy FRESH MEAT (which hits VOD and iTunes on April 16, and screens at the Tribeca Film Festival) claims to have no shame, or pride. But he makes up for it with passion, expletives and multiple mentions of the word “terrific.”

Mulheron stamped his mark on cult film in 1990, as the first human to win an award for playing a crazed hippopotamus. The movie was Peter Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES, and alongside donning a layer of foam rubber to play the gun-totting hippo, Mulheron had a hand in making the script as tasteless as possible. “FEEBLES was a terrific experience, but it was anarchy,” he says. “We sort of made it and blew it at the same time”.

Since then, the multi-talented Mulheron has moved into directing for television and theatre in his native New Zealand. And now the man who finds blandness and cliché the ultimate horror has directed FRESH MEAT, his first movie. For a film set largely in one location, FRESH MEAT serves up a full and varied meal. The basic plotline—a dysfunctional gang of criminals invade the house of a family of image-conscious cannibals—offers gunplay, drugs, power battles, lesbian schoolgirls and some bonus limb-lopping in the final quarter.

Some days during filming (at the same Wellington studio complex where the classic BRAINDEAD was shot) Mulheron had sudden flashbacks to playing Heidi the hippo. “That sticky-sweet fake blood brought back, not so much a flashback, as a gastric reflux.”

The death scenes of this cannibal comedy merited serious thinking. “When I wrote that (unproduced) NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET script with Peter Jackson, each death related to a person’s flaws or weaknesses or fears. It was the same with FRESH MEAT. We tried to create death scenes that related to their particular type of character.”

“Cannibalism is about consumption, the same way zombie movies are,” says Mulheron, putting on his serious hat. “The walking dead are really the walking living.” In FRESH MEAT, he argues, cannibalism is about fame and wanting to succeed. The film’s lead cannibals, a celebrity cook and egotistical academic, live in an upper middle-class suburb, an “architectural cemetery” where no one knows their neighbors. For Mulheron the setting is like so many “vast soulless suburbs where our aspirations have taken us…they’re deathly.”

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Though made in New Zealand, FRESH MEAT’s DNA is actually Canadian. Brad Abraham (ROBOCOP: PRIME DIRECTIVES) and Joseph O’Brien (the upcoming DEVIL’S MILE) wrote their first draft in Toronto, in 1996. Plans to shoot the crime thriller/splatter mashup on a low budget, guerilla-style, were soon overtaken by faltering Hollywood interest. In 2002 New Zealand producer Dave Gibson (THE TRUTH ABOUT DEMONS) got on board, commissioning further Abraham/O’Brien rewrites. Then Gibson came up with the idea of making the cannibal family Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous people), and bought in Maori scriptwriter Briar Grace-Smith, who is better known for more serious fare. “She loves horror movies,” says Mulheron. “She always wanted to write one.” When Mulheron heard about the plotline, he laughed and thought “that sounds me”.

Though the biggest name on the FRESH MEAT cast list is Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett in STAR WARS – ATTACK OF THE CLONES) it’s the females who dominate. Kate Elliott (NZ Horror THE LOCALS) plays anti-hero Gigi, arguably the only one of the crims who can shoot straight. “She’s fascinating-looking and aggressive and feral, a terrific performance. I think the most useful thing I said to her was that her role was Clint Eastwood in hot pants and a much better ass”.

Mulheron first saw newcomer Hanna Tevita, who plays Rina, the teenager caught between her increasingly dodgy family and an attraction to Gigi, in a performance at his daughter’s high school. “She was playing a young Maori boy. Hanna has a great laugh and a good sense of humor, and the confidence to relax in front of the camera” – all useful qualities, when the director was keen to avoid old clichés of the screaming victim.

“Comedy and horror can go places you’re not meant to go, and that’s part of the fun of it,” says Mulheron. “As soon as you take it seriously you get this ghastly sense of responsibility, some code of honor. I don’t have any of that. I’ve got no shame or pride.” Mulheron argues that horror and comedy are very similar. “Horror movies are comedies in my opinion. They make you enjoy terror, and distance you from it. They laugh at it. Real horror is blandness and indifference.”

So what’s next for this veteran provocateur? Acting in a musical about cancer; and rewrites of a “grotesque comedy” about a gangster.

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About the author
Ian Pryor
Ian Pryor has been writing about New Zealand films and filmmakers for longer than he really wants to remember. His book Peter Jackson: from Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings was published in the US by St Martin's Press.
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